Attention difficulties can occur for a variety of reasons. At Leaps and Bounds, occupational therapists assess a child to determine if inefficient sensory processing is contributing to attention problems. The auditory, visual, tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular systems can all play a primary role in attention (or inattention). Even the olfactory system can play a role!
Auditory System and Attention
A child can become distractible if his auditory system cannot tune in to the important information and tune out the unimportant auditory information. For instance, imagine a child sitting in a classroom, attempting to do his work. The sounds he may hear are children in the hallway, a door opening or closing, the pencil of the child behind him scratching on the paper, the turning of pages, the squeaking of chairs, and/or the teacher moving about the room. If this child’s auditory system has difficulty tuning out, or ignoring, those sounds he will likely be distracted and unable to attend to his work.
If a child is sensitive to auditory information, then he might become distracted every time he hears a sound that his auditory system interprets as loud, scary or offensive. Additionally, a child who is sensitive may constantly be “on edge” in anticipation of sounds that are loud, scary or offensive.
Visual System and Attention
Attention difficulties can also occur as a result of poor visual processing. When a child’s visual system is not processing efficiently, that child is likely having difficulty focusing on what visual information is important. That child will become easily distracted by extra visual stimulation and not be able to attend to what is relevant for the task at hand. This can occur if there are too many words on a page, too much stimulation on the walls, or movement in the room. Often, a child with poor visual processing will see something in his periphery and will have to turn his head (and often his whole body) to attend to that object. Also, if his visual system is not processing information efficiently, he may not accurately perceive letters or words, which can lead to disinterest, frustration, and/or distractibility.
Tactile System and Attention
The tactile system can also be a source of distractibility. If a child does not appropriately process touch information, then he may be either a sensory avoider or a sensory seeker. If a child is a sensory avoider, then his body may become irritated, and therefore distracted by touch. This tactile input may come from the fabric of clothing, clothing tags, seams, the chair, the feel of paper and pencil in hand….the list is endless. When a child is sensitive to touch, then he also might become wiggly and distracted by this touch information. If a child is a sensory seeker, then he may not get enough tactile information, so his body may seek it out. This can become a distraction, as the child’s body feels the need to constantly touch things and/or put things in his mouth.
Vestibular / Proprioceptive Systems and Attention
Inefficient vestibular and proprioceptive processing can also contribute to inattention. If these systems are not processing information about where the body is in space and how to move the body, then a child may become wiggly and active, and a child appears to be unable to attend. Difficulty processing vestibular and proprioceptive information can affect a child’s postural control. Poor postural control can affect his ability to sit upright (and still); therefore, a child may become wiggly when sitting at a school desk or at the dinner table.
Olfactory System and Attention
It is often forgotten about, but the olfactory system also plays a role in attention. If a child does not process this information effectively, his system may be overly sensitive to fragrances, cleaners, food, candles, etc. Poor processing in the olfactory system is sometimes the most difficult to assess because the child may not realize it is affecting him. If his body is sensitive to smells, he may appear lethargic, withdrawn, or distracted.